to sign a letter, to put one’s name on a book, a painting, a musical composition, or a film is to say: “i did this”. in other words, one takes responsibility for its content. living in the west in the twenty first century, one is quick to forget how dangerous it was—and still is in some places—to publish material that some would like to ban for moral, political, or religious reasons. the few who dare make a stand against public opinion or the diktats of doctrinaire clerics and authoritarian governments are courageous people indeed.
in the west, authorship is more prosaically connected to copyrights, contracts, and other financial issues. think for a moment of all the work, time, and money that is spent authenticating paintings for collectors and museums. why would acclaimed photographers limit the number of prints from their negative? why is the authors guild so adamantly opposed to amazon’s low book price policy? in all of this, the artist (followed by his/her legal successors) essentially functions as a monopolist trying to protect the financial value of the original material.
one alternative is to publish anonymously or through a pseudonym. for a long time no one knew the real identity of “pauline réage” or “elena ferrante”. depending upon the interest the work generates, it can nevertheless be difficult to remain unidentified for long. leaks develop and the whole matter ends up looking like a publicity stunt. directors could not be credited under dogma 95 vow of chastity but, when the cannes film festival gave its jury prize to the celebration, thomas vinterberg was only too happy to walk down the aisle and receive the award.
the issues of authorship, property, money, etc., crop up because traditional art is something tangible. a book, a painting, and a film negative are all physical entities. all could be held in one’s hand. in contrast, with digital, where is your work once you shut down your cell phone or your computer? linux once made a splash because it was an open source software in contrast to proprietary operating systems such as windows. a similar operation can be attempted with digital. whereas the natural tendency is to seal one’s work against further changes, why not deposit it on a media platform and invite others not just to “augment” but develop it. in short, open the file to endless appropriations and transformations. people are already contributing their own images to popular songs. others have dubbed new lines onto a famous film scene for comedic effect. video mashups can be fun and surprising. what i am suggesting here would push the envelope further. it would implement a notion dear to deleuze and guattari that speaks of an endless, non-hierarchical formation and reformation of a prototype through space and time. once let loose, “your” project, in theory at least, would never cease to undergo mutations, some dreadful and leading nowhere, others electrifying and momentous. it could be recut, the music changed, scenes added with new actors. the story could be altered with a voice-over or, more radically, new characters and a new narrative introduced, turning the earlier events into a flash back narrated by one of the more recently added protagonists. this of course would mean saying good-bye once and for all to the idea of authorship (which i grant you isn’t easy) and accept the transformation of your precious baby into an alien creature. there are antecedents though: in the middle ages for instance it was taken for granted that a famous tale would be embellished, embroidered with new twists or even restructured by the storyteller, based on that individual’s unique abilities or predilections.
digital allows us to leave behind the traditional art object. the work no longer has to be protected, embalmed, fetishized, or monetized. let the work go. part company with it. wish it bon voyage, then get going on the next project.